PAY a special visit to the Louvre one day in order to make a detailed study of Madonnas. Before doing so, however, read and digest the following general statement of principles on the subject :
People who have not thrown themselves, or thought themselves, or read themselves into the mental attitude of early art, often complain that Italian picture galleries, and museums like Cluny, are too full of merely sacred subjects. But when once you have learnt to understand and appreciate them, to know the meaning which lurks in every part, you will no longer make this causeless complaint. As well object to Greek art that it represents little save the personages of Greek mythology. As a mat-ter of fact, though the Louvre contains a fair number of Madonnas, it does not embrace a sufficient number to give a perfectly clear conception of the varieties of type and the development of the subject, not so good a series in many respects as the National Gallery, though it is particularly well adapted for the study of certain special groups, particularly the Lionardesque-Lombard development.
The simplest type of Madonna is that where Our Lady appears alone with the Divine Infant. This modification of the subject most often occurs as a half length, though sometimes the Blessed Virgin is so represented in full length, enthroned, or under a canopy. Several such simple Madonnas occur in the gallery. In the earliest examples here, however, such as Cimabue’s, and the cognate altar-piece of the school of Giotto, the Madonna is seen surrounded by angelic supporters. This forms a second group, Our Lady with Angels. Very early examples of this treatment show the angels in complete isolation, as a sort of framework. (See several parallels in sculpture in Room VI., ground floor, at Cluny.) Grouping is yet is non-existent. No specimen of this very original type is to be found in the Louvre ; but in the Cimabue of this gallery the angels are superimposed, so to speak, while in the Giottesque example close by an elementary attempt is made at grouping them. In later works the angels are more and more naturally represented, from age to age, singly or in pairs, or else grouped irregularly on either side of Our Lady. You will note for yourself that as the Renaissance develops, the nature of the grouping, both of angels and saints, deviates more and more from the early strict architectural symmetry.
A slight variant on the simple pictures of the Madonna and Child are those, of Florentine origin, in which the infant St. John Baptist, the patron saint of the city of Florence, is introduced at play with the childish Saviour. This class the Madonna and Child, with St. Johnis well represented in the Belle Jardiniére, and several other pictures in the Louvre.
Most often, however, the Madonna is seen enthroned, in the centre of the altar-piece or composition, and surrounded by one, two, or three pairs of saintly personages. The Ma-donna with Saints thus forms a separate group of subjects. These saints, you will by this time have gathered, are never arbitrarily introduced. They were selected and commissioned, as a rule, by the purchaser, and they are there for a good and sufficient reason. Often the donor desired to pay his devotion in this fashion to his own personal patron ; often to the patron of his town or village, of the church in which the picture was to be deposited, or of his family or relations. Frequently, again, the picture was a votive offering, as against plague or other dreaded calamity ; in which case it is apt to contain figures of the great plague saints, Roch and Sebastian. Ignorant people often object that such sets of saints are not contemporary. They forget that this is the Enthroned Madonna, and that the action takes place in the Celestial City, where the saints surround the throne of Our Lady.
As regards grouping, in the earlier altar-pieces the selected saints were treated in complete isolation. Most often the Madonna and Child occupy in such cases a central panel, under its own canopy, while the saints are each enclosed in a separate little alcove or gilded tabernacle. Reminiscences of this usage linger long in Italy. Later on, as art progressed, painters began to feel the stiffness of such an arrangement ; they placed the attend-ant saints at first in regularly disposed pairs on either side the throne, and afterward in some-thing approaching a set composition. With the High Renaissance, the various figures, instead of occupying mere posts round the seat of Our Lady, and gazing at her in adoration, began to indulge in conversation with one another, or to take part in some more or less animated and natural action. This method of arrangement, which culminates for the Florentine school in Fra Bartolommeo, degenerates with the Decadence into confused and muddled groups, with scarcely a trace of symbolsgroups of well-draped models, in which it is impossible to see any sacred significance. The Florentine painters preferred, as a rule, such rather complex grouping ; the Venetians, influenced in great part by the severer taste of Giorgone and of Titian, usually show a more simple arrangement.
Any one of these various types of Madonna may also be modified by the introduction of a kneeling donor. Thus, Van Eyck’s glowing picture of the Chancellor Rollin adoring Our Lady is an example of the simple Madonna and Child, enthroned, accompanied by the donor ; though, in this case, the composition is further slightly enriched by the dainty little floating angel in the background, who places an exquisitely jewelled crown of the finest Flemish workmanship on the head of the Virgin. The Madonna della Vittoria, again, which we have so fully considered, is essentially a Madonna and Saints, with the kneeling donor. In very early pictures, you will observe that the donors are often painted grotesquely small, while Our Lady and the saints are of relatively superhuman stature, to mark their superiority as heavenly personages. In later works, this absurdity dies out, and the figure and face of the donor become one of the recognised excuses for early portrait paint.. ing. Indeed, portraiture took its rise for the modern world from such kneeling figures.
Another point of view from which it is interesting to compare these various Madonnas is that of the nationality or school of art to which they belong. The early Italian representations of Our Lady are usually more or less girlish in appearance, refined in features, and comparatively simple in dress and decoration. The Flemish type is peculiarly insipid, one might often say, even with great artists, inane and meaningless ; in the hands of minor painters, it becomes positively wooden. The face here is long and rather thin ; the features peaky. The Madonna of Flemish art, indeed, like the Christ of all art, is a sacred type which is seldom varied. Early French Madonnas, once more, are regal and ladylike, sometimes even courtly. They wear crowns as queens, and are better observed in the Louvre in sculpture than in painting. This gallery hardly suffices to note in full the peculiarities of the sub-types in various Italian schools ; but they may still be recognised. Of these, the Florentine are spiritual, delicate, and strongly ideal ; the Lombard, intellectual, like well-read ladies ; the Venetian, stately and matronly oligarchical mothers, de-generating later into the mere aristocratic nobility, soulless and materialised, of Titian and his followers. The Umbrians and Sienese are distinguished for the most part by their pure and saintly air of fervent piety.
Do not confound with any of these devotional Madonnas, with or without select groups of saints, various other classes of picture which somewhat resemble them. Each of these has in early art its own proper convention and treatment : it was a recognised species. A Holy Family, for example, consists, as a rule, of a Madonna, the infant Christ, St. Joseph, St. Elizabeth, and the child Baptist. Like the other subjects, it is sometimes complicated by the addition of selected saints as spectators or assessors. A Coronation of the Virgin, again, is an entirely celestial scene, taking place in the calm of the heavenly regions. The Madonna is usually crowned by her Son, but sometimes by angels or by the Eternal Father. (Several interesting examples of this, for comparison, occur in Room VI., ground floor, at Cluny.) Nativities, of course, belong rather to the group of pictorial histories, such as the Life of Christ, or the Seven Joys of Mary. The sculptures in the ambulatory at Notre-Dame give one a good idea of such continuous histories.
One interesting set of Madonnas, largely exemplified here, to take a particular example, is the later Lombard type of the school of Lionardo. This type, well distinguished by its regular oval features, its gentle smile of inner happiness, and its peculiar waving hair with wisps over the shoulders, is usually regarded as essentially belonging to Lionardo himself and his immediate followers. It is foreshadowed, however, by Foppa, Borgognone, and other early Lombard painters, specimens of whom are not numerous in the Louvre. Lionardo, when he came to Milan to Ludovico Sforza, adopted this local type, which he transfused with Florentine grace and with his own peculiar subdued smile, as one sees it already in the Mona Lisa. From Lionardo, again, it was taken, with more or less success, by his immediate pupils, Beltraffio, Solario, Cesare di Sesto, and others, as well as by Luini, who was not a pupil of Lionardo himself, but who was deeply influenced by the master’s methods and his works in Milan. The number of these Lionardesque Madonnas in the Louvre is exceptionally great, while Lionardo himself can here be better estimated than in Italy. No-where else, perhaps, save possibly at Milan, can this type as a whole be compared by the student to so great advantage.
While the Madonna herself usually occupies the central panel of votive pictures, it some-times happens that some other saint is, on his own altar-piece, similarly enthroned ; and in that case he is flanked by brother saints, often more important in themselves, but then and there subordinated to him. This special honour under special circumstances is well seen in the case of the St. Lawrence at the far end of the Salle des Primitifs. Particular local saints often thus receive what might otherwise appear undue recognition. For the same reason, minor saints in the group surrounding a Madonna often obtain local brevet-rank (if I may be allowed the simile) over others of far greater general dignity, which they could not lay claim to in any other connection. Thus, in the Nativity by Giulio Romano, to which I called attention in connection with Mantegna’s Madonna, St. Longinus (with his crystal vase) stood on Our Lady’s right, while St. John was relegated to her left, a subordination of the greater to the lesser saint which would only be possible in a chapel actually dedicated to St. Longinus, and where he receives peculiar honour. I now propose to escort you round a few rooms of the Louvre, again calling attention very briefly, from this point of view, to certain special Madonna features only.
Now, go to the Louvre’ and test these re-marks. Begin at the far end of the Salle des Primitifs. The Cimabue and the Giottesque of the Madonna and Angels we have already considered. Compare them again from our present standpoint. Close to them on the right, beneath the large Giotto of St. Francis, are two pretty little Madonnas, 1620 (I now give the large upper numbers alone) and 1667. The first of these exhibits below two tiny votaries, the small-sized donors, a Franciscan monk and a Dominican nun, with the robes of their orders ; the centre consists of St. Paul and St. Catherine, as the attendant saints on the large Enthroned Virgin. The second has the choir of angels, both surrounding and beneath the throne, with St. Peter (keys), St. Paul (sword), St. John Baptist (camel-hair), and St. Stephen or St. Vincent (robed as deacon). St. Peter and St. Paul in 1625 are similar figures, once surrounding a central panel, with the Madonna, now missing. Compare with this 1666, with its Enthroned Madonna of the early almond-eyed type, its group of angels round the throne, and its two saints at the base, John Baptist and Peter. Observe that the types of these also can be recognised. Each saint has regular features of his own, which you can learn to know quite as well as the symbols.
Higher up, 1664, another Madonna and Child, Enthroned, with similar angels, but with the addition of the figure of St. Catherine of Alexandria, on whose finger the Christ is placing a ring. This is an early intermediate type of the Marriage of St. Catherine, hardly yet characterised. Most of these Madonnas have the characteristic softness and peculiar cast of countenance of the early school of Siena.
1279, Gentile de Fabriano, is almost a simple Madonna and Child, but for the addition of the smaller donor, Pandolfo Malatesta, Lord of Rimini. This picture shows the bland and round-faced Umbrian type, which is closely allied to that of Siena. Both schools are remarkable for the fervent pietism which blossomed out in full in St. Francis of Assisi and St. Catherine of Siena.
In the beautiful Peruginô above, 1564, note the complete transformation in the later Umbrian school of the adoring angels into a graceful pair, and the beginning of an attempt to group in comparatively natural attitudes the accompanying saints, Rose and Catherine.
This feature is still more marked in 1565, also Perugino (but later), where the Baptist and St. Catherine, well composed, are thrown into the background behind the Madonna. Observe that while earlier piety drapes the Child, in Gentile, and still more in Perugino, the growing love for the nude begins to exhibit itself. A study of halos is also interesting.
On the opposite or right side, 1 315 is a good example of, the simple Enthroned Madonna of the school of Giotto. Compare it with that next it, 1316, where the angels are grouped with some attempt at composition.
1397, by Neri di Bicci, is also a characteristic half-length simple Madonna, with the Child still draped after the earlier fashion affected by this belated follower of Giottesque models.
1345, beneath it, by Filippo Lippi or his school, shows a characteristic type of features which this painter introduced, a modification of the older Florentine ideal: the face is said to be that of his model, Lucrezia Buti, the nun with whom he eloped, and whom he was finally permitted to marry. The angels in the back-ground show well the rapid advance in the treatment of these accessories. Observe, as you pass, their Florentine lilies. Their features are like those of the Medici children, as seen in numerous works at Florence.
In 1295, by Botticelli, we get that individual painter’s peculiar mystical and somewhat languid type, while the angels are again like Medici portraits. Study these Botticellis for his artistic personality.
1344, by Filippo Lippi, next to it, exhibits Filippo’s very rounded faces, both in Madonna and angels. The type is more human. Here, again, we have the Florentine lily borne by the adoring choir, whose position should be compared as a faint lingering reminiscence of that in the Giottesques and , the great Cimabue. Observe, at the same time, the division of the painting as a whole into three false compartments, a suggestion from the earlier type of altar-piece. At the Madonna’s feet are two adoring saints, difficult to identify, Florentine and local, probably. Do not fail to gaze close at the characteristic baby cherubs, perhaps Lucrezia’s. This picture should be compared in all its details with earlier pictures of angel choirs. It is a lovely work. Its delicate painting is strongly characteristic. The relief of the faces should be specially noted.
The Botticelli next it, 1296, introduces us to the infant St. John of Florence, whom we meet again in the Belle Jardinière of Raphael’s Florentine period. Another young St. John close by is full of suggestions of Donatello in the sculpture gallery.
493, above the last but one, is a very characteristic Madonna of the Florentine school, closely resembling the type of Botticelli. This once more is a simple Madonna and Child, without accessories.
In 1662, the sanctity has almost disappeared, and we get scarcely more than a purely human mother and baby.
On the opposite side, 4573, is a half-length by Perugino, the affected pose of whose neck, and the character of whose face you will now recognise ; the Madonna floats in an almond-shaped glory of cherubs, which indicates her ascent to heaven. Several similar objects exist in sculpture at Cluny.
1540, Lo Spagna, is again a simple half-length Madonna, whose purely Umbrian type recalls both Perugino and the earlier examples. Compare the Peruginos, Raphaels, and Lo Spagnas here, and form from them some conception of the Umbrian ideal.
Of the Bellini beside it I have already spoken sufficiently: Observe, here, the absolute nudity of the Child, and the reduction of the angels to sweet little cherub heads among clouds in the background. The graceful arrangement of the attendant saints strikes a Bellini key-note : it was followed in later developments of this subject by Venetian painters. Such half-lengths are common among the school of Bellini.
The treatment by Cima, 1259, introducing landscape, and the peculiarly high Venetian throne, is one of a sort also very frequent for full-length Madonnas at Venice and in the Venetian territory. The grouping of the saints, also, is here transitional. Compare it with the exquisite Lorenzo de Credi opposite.
On the opposite wall, 1367, by Mainardi, shows us a Florentine face, the St. John of Florence, and the typical sweet-faced Florentine angels, holding lilies ; in the background, a view of the city.
Cosimo Rosseli’s, 1482, has again the almond-shaped glory of cherubs, the nude Child, the typical Florentine face (which you may now recognise), and also characteristic Florentine angels ; but its St. Bernard and the Magdalen are introduced on clouds after a somewhat novel fashion. The St. Bernard is writing down his vision of the Madonna.
I have already called attention to the beautiful grouping in 1263, by Lorenzo di Credi; but observe now that the exquisite attendant saints, almost statuesque in their clear-cut isolation, still show a reminiscence of the earlier arrangement in tabernacles by the Renaissance arch-ways at their back, combined with the niche in which the Madonna is enthroned. Only by the light of Giottesque examples can we under-stand the composition of this glorious picture. We do not know the circumstances under which it was produced : but St. Julian was the patron saint of Rimini, as St. Nicolas was of Bari. Both these towns were great Adriatic ports, and I believe it was painted for a merchant of the neighbourhood.
Do not be content in any of these cases with observing merely the points to which I call definite attention ; try to compare each work throughout in all its details with others like it. The evolution of the grouping, in fact, will give you endless hints as to the history and development of the art of composition. This picture of Lorenzo’s may be regarded, as exemplifying the finest stage in such works : those of later date are less pure and severe, show a tendency to confusion.
This will be quite enough to occupy you for one day. Another morning, proceed into the Long Gallery, where you can similarly compare the High Renaissance types and Lionardesque Madonnas of the later school of Lombardy.
In the little Madonna of the school of Francia, 1437, observe the position of the attendant saint, the new type of face proper to the art of Bologna, and the way in which, as often, the infant Christ is poised on a parapet.
1553, by Garofalo, shows a later and softer development of a somewhat similar (Ferrarese) type ; but the Child, instead of blessing with his two fingers as in most early cases, here displays the growing Renaissance love of variety and novelty : he is asleep in his cradle. Ob, serve his attitude in this and other instances.
With all these changes, however, you cannot fail to be struck by the fairly constant persistence of the red tunic and the blue mantle of the Madonna, as well as by the nature of her head-dress in each great school. Never fail to observe the characteristic head-dresses in the various schools of Italian art. They will help you, like the faces, to form types for comparison.
1353, by Luini, introduces us at once to the Lombard-Lionardesque class of face and hair. Compare it closely with the Madonnas in the frescoes in the Salle Duchâtel. The introduction of Joseph makes this in essence a Holy Family. Note Luini’s development of the halo of Christ, cruciform in early cases, or composed of a cross inscribed in a circle, into a cross-like arrangement of rays of light.
The two works by Marco da Oggiono, close by, betray similar types, far inferior to Luini’s, with further loss of primitive reverence.
In 1181, Borgognone’s Presentation, an earlier Lombard work, the Madonna faintly foreshadows this Lionardesque type, though Lionardesque features are far less markedly present than in many other examples by this silvery painter.
1530, by Solario, the famous Madonna of the Green Cushion, may be compared with those by Marco da Oggiono, which it resembles in motive.
In 1599, La Vierge aux Rochers, we get Lionardo’s own personal type, which is also seen in the Madonna and St. Anne of the Salon Carré. Compare all these with the Mona Lisa, for touch and spirit. Then continue your examination through the rest of this room with the Lionardesque types : after which, turn to the school of Venice, beyond them, and note the evolution of the Titianesque types from the primitive Venetians.
On the opposite side of the same room, observe, once more, how Fra Bartolommeo and his school arranged their extremely complex groups of saints into a composition resembling a state ceremonial. From this point on in the evolution of the Santa Conversazione you will see that the arrangement of the saints entirely loses all sense of sacred meaning. Artificial ecstasies replace natural piety. An attempt to be artistic, and a desire to introduce a mode of treatment fitter for the theatre than for the church, at last entirely obscure the original meaning of these groups, which are so full of ardour in Fra Angelico, so full of stateliness in Lorenzo di Credi.
Another day may well be devoted to the quaintly girlish Madonnas of the Flemish school. Begin by observing carefully the Van Eyck of the Salon Carré, which is a Madonna with donor, and the Memling of the Salle Duchâtel, which is a Madonna with donors, not one with saints ; the patrons here being merely brought in to introduce the votaries to Our Lady’s notice. From these proceed to the early Flemish section of the Long Gallery, and note in detail the evolution of the type in later pictures. I need hardly call attention to the Flemish love for crowns, jewelry, and costly adjuncts. These reflect the wealthy burgher life of Bruges, Ghent, and Antwerp. The translucent colour of the Flemish painters, too, lends itself well to these decorative elements.
The best example of an early French Ma-donna is the beautiful one which hangs by the right-hand side of the door in the Salon Carré, leading into the Salle Duchâtel. This exquisite figure,’a true masterpiece of its school, should be compared with later French developments in painting, as well as with the admirable collection of plastic works of this school in the Renaissance sculpture gallery down-stairs. With these may also be mentioned, as a typical French example, the famous miracle-working Notre-Dame-de-Paris, a statue of the thirteenth or fourteenth century, which stands under a canopy against the pillar by the entrance to the choir in the south transept of Notre-Dame, and is popularly regarded as the statue of Our Lady to which the church is dedicated. The close connection between royalty and religion in France, well exemplified in the number of saints of the royal house at St. Germain l’Auxerrois, St. Germain-des-Prés, St. Denis, and elsewhere, is markedly exhibited in the extremely regal and high-bred character always given to French Madonnas. The Florentine, which form in this respect the greatest contrast, are often envisaged as idealised peasants girls, full of soul and fervour, but by no means exalted.
Finally, note as far as possible with the few materials in this collection, the round-faced, placid type of the German Madonna, – placid when at rest, though contorted (as the Mater Dolorosa) with exaggerated anguish. The fine wooden statue in the room of the Limoges enamels at Cluny will help to strike the key-note for this somewhat domestic national ideal. The early German Madonna .is as often as not just a glorified housewife.